Baby Photos Increase Desire for Marriage
Looking at photos of cute infants makes women want to marry sooner than men.
Posted Dec 19, 2017
The negative social consequences of living as an unmarried couple have diminished over time. Why, then, does anyone even bother to tie the knot?
There are plenty of good reasons, of course—reducing your shared tax burden, placating traditionalist in-laws, shedding an awful maiden name, throwing an expensive party, even — possibly — love. But a marriage begins with a wedding, and a wedding takes place on a set date: How do we decide when we should get married?
We humans often like to flatter ourselves that we are the masters of our own destiny, and that we make important life decisions based on clear thinking and reason. But our attitudes are shaped by all manner of unconscious processes, and when it comes to matters of the heart, we’re perhaps more likely than not to be swayed by outside influences.
A team of psychologists based at Texas Christian University have investigated one such influence. Charles Lord and his colleagues brought 120 unmarried, student-aged men and women to their lab to take part in a study of weight perception. The volunteers were shown images of objects belonging to a specific category, such as fruit. Their task was to rank the three objects — say, a banana, an orange, and a lemon — in weight order, from heaviest to lightest. The volunteers ranked objects from multiple categories, including vehicles, clothing, and electronic devices.
If you’re now asking yourself what a study about estimating the weights of cellphones and spanners and sports cars has to do with marriage, that’s precisely the point: The cunning researchers designed the task to throw their volunteers off the scent — to conceal the most important part of the experiment.
Next, the volunteers were split into two groups: Half of the volunteers, the control group, judged only inanimate objects; the other half were also asked to rank a set of smiling baby photos. Now the researchers had one group of people that had been exposed to images of cute infants, and another that hadn’t.
The volunteers then began what they thought was a second task: a questionnaire about their future life plans. Among a long list of filler questions was the one question the psychologists were interested in: At what age would you like to get married?
In general, women wanted to get married at a younger age than men: about six years in the future to men’s seven and a half. But, after viewing baby photos, women reported that they desired to get married at a younger age — around 5.5 years in the future for women who saw the babies, compared to 6.7 years in the future for women who hadn’t. Estimating the weight of three babies made young women want to get married more than a year sooner!
What about men? Men who saw the babies wanted to get married later, although the difference in responses between the men who saw and didn’t see babies was not statistically significant; we can’t be confident the difference would emerge again if we were to repeat the study.
A further interesting result was that men and women who hadn’t seen the baby photos agreed on how long they would want to wait to marry. It was only among those who were shown the baby photos that the difference between men and women emerged.
This study can’t tell us whether the effect is long-lasting: A few weeks, days, or even hours after seeing the baby photos, would the women have returned to their baseline desire for marriage? We don’t know.
And is the effect cumulative? If a woman’s social media accounts are a nonstop torrent of other people’s baby photos, does her desire for imminent marriage sky-rocket? Again, we don’t know.
A follow-up study, for which volunteers were recruited on the internet, produced similar results to the first. This suggests that the effect is not confined to the students of a church-affiliated Texan university, who may be more positive about the idea of marriage than the general population.
Still, I wonder if the effect is really about children. What would happen if people were to be exposed to images of smiling adults? Both smiling babies and smiling adults probably make us feel more social, and maybe when women are made to feel more social, they are more positive about earlier marriage. It could even be a mood effect: Baby pictures make us happy, but so do pictures of cute animals. Would kitten and puppy pictures make men or women more eager to marry?
The only way to be sure if the baby effect is really about the babies is to focus on what makes baby images unique compared to other images. Until then, men who are reluctant to wed might want to consider steering their partners away from other people's baby pictures.
Lord, C. G., Holland, C. J., & Hill, S. E. (2018). Individual differences in the effects of baby images on attitudes toward getting married. Personality and Individual Differences, 121, 106–110. Read summary